By Mitchell Seidel
An accomplished performer and educator, saxophonist David Liebman is a man who can talk as passionately about music as he plays it. An avid follower of John Coltrane, he heard the saxophonist live while still a teenager in New York. Liebman went to perform with the likes of Elvin Jones, Miles Davis, Chick Corea and his own group, Lookout Farm, all the while demonstrating that you can perform as part of a group situation without compromising your principals. He currently has no less than four new albums in record stores, the latest being a compilation on Mosaic of sessions he recorded with pianist Richie Beirach. He jumps effortlessly between several performance situations, as a soloist, in a small group, a big band and lately with fellow saxophonists Joe Lovano and Michael Brecker as the Saxophone Summit (affectionately known as the Three Tenors). In the middle of March, he was preparing for yet another trip to Europe, just before the recent terrror bombings in Madrid.
All About Jazz: So, are you all set for your trip?
Dave Liebman: (Laughing) Never set. Takes days to get ready and days to recover. But I've got a routine. This is Germany for three days and Spain for a week.
AAJ: What's the most rewarding part?
DL: You mean the touring aspect? Playing with musicians from different countries, and the communication of that and, of course. They bring me their influences, which are different... and I guess I bring them my experience and whatever musical wisdom I can give them. It's very nice. I do quite a bit of it. I've had some very long and good associations with people in every country there.
AAJ: Do you get a chance to get the music ahead of time to check it out?
DL: It used to be, no. Now, these days they send it, and often with a CD, a programmed verson of it. I look it over, and if it's anything tricky I get to it a little beforehand. But basically, I'll land tomorrow or Sunday morning, rehearse and play that night. I'm pretty fast because I've been doing a lot of it. One good thing about having a reputation is people sort of know what is best suited for a musician. They're not going to give me something that is best suited for a different guy. It's usually very comfortable and really a lot of fun. The first night is always the biggest fun because it's a new night, a new event.
AAJ: What's the biggest drag about doing it?
DL: You don't get continuity, of course, you know, three, four, five, six nights. And it develops, but there's always potential for more... The good thing is the spontanaeity and the newness of it. In my case, I keep a steady band together as much as I can work, because that gives that part of satisfaction... If I did only that (playing with local groups) I wouldn't feel as satisfied because you just don't have time to know everybody's game.
AAJ: You recently forwarded an email to people on your mailing list about an effort to restore John Coltrane's house in Dix Hills, and in that message, you called him the most important influence on your life, aside from your parents. Could you comment on that?
DL: Yeah, that's (a) pretty strong statement. In the sense that when I saw him, cumulatively, in those teenage years in New York, it made me see there was more to music than what I thought at that time in my life. It took me years to find, or try to find what that is. It wasn't just, "people get up and play an instrument" - there's something below the surface. I didn't know, I couldn't recognize it, but I could feel it. Whatever that was, that was what propelled me to, not necessarily play, because I was playing and making a career in music...In those days you didn't sit down and go to school for it and think you were going to do it. But when I was playing and making a life at it, it always focused me to realize though Coltrane, through that experience of seeing him and hearing him, what music could be capable of on a spiritual level. And that is important, because that puts things into focus outside of the mundane and the material, which you have to think about, of course. This puts a little topper on it that keeps you really focused, especially in times when things are not so good, which, of course, happens...My parents, of course, are my parents. You spend 18 years with them, that's going to be a big influence. In my case, they were great. But this was what really set the direction of my life. If I had not seen him, I think - and having seen other jazz - I certainly would have loved jazz and still played it, but I would not have had that view of what it really is, and (I) think that's what helped me focus my life, even if it was Miles or whatever, I didn't get that from anybody else in that depth as I did from seeing that group. And it had to be, for me, at least seeing a group. I don't think I would have been the same, if I was five years younger, I wouldn't have seen it. I would have heard it like everyone else does and I don't think it would have been the same effect as witnessing it.
AAJ: The spiritual part has obviously filtered into your music.
DL: I wouldn't be as pretentious as to say "spiritual". Let's say the intensity and the energy, and the "meaning it". I try to mean it. Sincerity. Which is really the main thing I got from Coltrane. It was just so honest and sincere. Besides those skills...it has taken me years, it's still taking me years to understand the skill of it, the sophistication musically. But that thing of the honesty and sincerity, that's what I saw, and being young it really affected me. I said, "How could they do that? Just get up and do that like they're brushing their teeth or picking up a spoon and eating? It was normal, like they just get up and do that?" What they do - or did - it was so incredible, the intensity of it and the beauty of it. That's what I try to carry with me.
AAJ: A lot of the criticism of young musicians these days is that there isn't that sense of honesty or sincerity in their playing. What do you tell your students about developing their own voice?
DL: Well, I didn't have it either at 25 years old. That is something that comes with age and time and dues, and just life. (It's) not divorced from your musical life. Just living the ups and downs and ins and out. I always tell them it's inevitable. You'll have it. Now, whether you'll recognize and then use your life experiences and meditate or reflect upon them and have a view of that, of what has happened to you, and who you are in the world and the world around you, that's something that won't just happen unless you apply yourself. When I'm finished with someone who's been with me a couple of years and they've gone through the routine, the way I leave them saying to them, "Now you've got to learn to be an artist. You have the skills to be a craftsman, but now you have to put it together in the sense of what do you have to say to people. What do you have to say is going to be a reflection of what you feel and think about yourself, about yourself in relation to others, about the world. So please, wake up, be aware and get out of the box. Think out of the musical box...and come up with a world view. Read and look and serach, and that will be reflected in what you play."
AAJ: You're as well known as an educator as you are as a performer. What do you get out of teaching?
DL: It really saved me...It goes back to a period in my life in the early '80s when I was very frustrated with the music scene, and some personal things happened to me and all this together made me feel that I should be trying to do something that would be of more benefit to the world than just getting up and playing a horn. By then I had done everything anyway. I looked into going into law school and got into a couple of schools, the Peace Corps and all that stuff. But what brought me out was teaching. I began to teach more. When I saw you could really have an effect on a one-at-a-time basis...where you could put someone in a position to realize the things that you had realized. Teaching for me is, the reward is...if one person "gets it", I've served as a sort of missionary. On a very practical level, besides helping me make a living...you really make associations with young people, which is great. You see what's going on. You stay out of your own age group. And, from a work standpoint, you end up producing your students, or playing on their records or playing on their gigs. It goes from master-apprentice to contemporary, to peer. I wouldn't be as good a musician as I am if I hadn't had my students challenge me with the kind of music they're writing, because they certainly do things different than I do.
AAJ: Anyone in your current group come up through the student ranks?
DL: Marko (Marcinko), the drummer. He was not a student of mine, but he went through the University of Miami. He played with Maynard (Ferguson) for a few years, (and) plays in rock bands. He plays a million instruments. He's typical in the sense that the student...comes through the schools now at the top level. He's completely educated. They can write for big band, they can write for string quartet. They play piano, they play another instrument of their choice and they're completely adept at five different styles of playing. And he is that.
AAJ: Was there a transition period for him, going from all that stuff you mentioned to your style?
DL: He still maintains a rock band (in the Scranton, PA. area), a very good rock band. A straight-ahead rock and roll band that he's trying to get on the map...It was a big shift for him, but his talent's extraordinary. He is a very good drummer. That's number one. I'm able to teach (him) by playing and by verbal directions. Adam Nussbaum, when he was with me in the late '70s, it was his first real major gig with a more experienced musician, and it's the same with him. You were able to say, "this is what you should be looking for, this is what you should be doing" and after the gigs we would talk, and I'm still on his case. We have a friendly, antagonistic relationship, which I love to have with a younger guy...it's the Art Blakey thing, that's where we got it from - somebody pointing it out or at least doing it so you can observe it.
AAJ: You studied with (tenor saxophonist) Charles Lloyd?
DL: I kind of hung/studied with him for an intense year. Every Sunday. He lived across from (where the Blue Note Club is) on West Fourth Street. I went up to him - coincidentally this week my daughter did "Fiddler on the Roof" and I re-listened to Cannonball (Adderley) doing "Fiddler" (with Lloyd) - it was when they were doing that music that I went up to Charles at the Half Note because Bob Moses, who was (my) first real friend who was aware of the scene...when I asked, "Who plays the most like Trane?", said "Charles Lloyd." I went to hear him, and sure enough, he sounded a lot like old 'Trane.
It was, I guess, '63 or '64. I went up to him and I said, "Do you teach?" He said, "No, but you can come by tomorrow." We established a relationship, where I...was kind of his gofer, in a way. Let's put it this way: he didn't teach the way I teach. He didn't give "Do this, do that, here are some facts." He just sat, we hung. He would talk about the situation. It was more of a hanging relationship than him saying "Now take this home and do this." But there were things here and there, and I would play for him. But the main thing I got out of him was number one, being close to a real live jazz musician who was happening at the time, seeing him on a personal level, and number two, because I was close with him and around a lot, hearing him a lot, he had great rhythm sections in those days. I mean (Pete) LaRocca, Tony Williams and Ron Carter, Herbie (Hancock). So I'd be there every night, hearing him, and hearing the guys. It was like an insider's view of the scene, which in those days, there was no other way to get it. There was no school situation. You had to do it by either being in a band or being around a band.
AAJ: In addition to performing with the quartet at Birdland in early April and teaching, you also have three new albums out in the stores: solo ( Colors, hatOLOGY), small group ( Conversation, Sunnyside) and big band ( Beyond the Line, Omnitone).
DL: These days, you can't control your releases anymore...If you get something out, it's probably old. It was probably recorded a while ago. You're lucky to get it out whenever. A small company can say January, and they really mean April. The confluence of three records was not planned, believe me. The solo record was done in '98, the big band was about a year or two ago and the group one I did do in the past year. The three different styles is a fact of my musical life, and has been for years. I really have a little bag of tricks that I do and they, in some ways can be seen as quite diverse. On the other hand, I think they're quite uniform in some respects. Of course, from the big band to the solo saxophone album, which is completely improvised based on colors to a big band, where everything's written, to a group which is like somewhere in between. Of course, they're three different ways of playing in different styles and that's just the way I've always enjoyed playing, from Lookout Farm to the very beginning. It keeps me interested. That's what I love. It keeps me active and on the case and facile, because you have to respond to different musical challenges.
AAJ: Colors is the theme and title of the solo album. How do you translate colors to aural terms?
DL: I'm a very...image-oriented thinker. If you say something to me, I get an image...and I can hear the music thaat goes with that. For me, if I say "red", I think intensity. "Black", void. "Grey", a kind of in-between state of nowheresville. I can go on forever in any of these things (laughing). And that, to me, translates to a musical shape using the parameters that we all use: melody, harmony, rhythm and color. Soft, loud, apex in the middle, apex in the beginning. Those things all come to me pretty quickly and then it's a matter of translating it. It's always been a kind of nice tool, and I'm glad I have that capacity. I don't hear the music for music's sake, I hear the music for the sake of the picture's that's in my mind, either pictorially or emotionally.
AAJ: That segues nicely into my question about what the writing process is like for you.
DL: Whatever comes out, I trust. I don't censor it. I edit it, of course, when I work on it, but I don't censor it. I say, "OK, is that what I came up with? Let me accept that that was some impulse of inspiration or creativity coming from some source that I don't need to know about and I'll accept that as a given and now I apply the 99 percent of the work." Which, of course, is what composing is: the skills you have learned as a composer.
AAJ: You don't second guess yourself.
DL: No. Most of the time I don't.
AAJ: You trust your gut.
DL: I do. I feel that the initial thing, once I have a concept and the parameters I described to you, the least I can do is trust the first reaction. And then apply technique. As a student, it's really important to say that. I remember when I wasn't like that and I would write and then rip it up. It's like the guy at the typewriter who's constantly ripping it out of the typewriter and throwing it into the garbage. That's true, you can be like that and wait for that magic gem that you'll accept, but it's not going to happen or if it's going to be unlikely, you really have to learn how to work with what you have in front of you and make that into something. So not every tune is a great tune. Not every tune is a masterpiece. But at least it's an expression of something in my life. Because I do these activities, I'll find a way to use it. I don't throw anything out. It gets used. Even if it's 30 years old, it gets used.
I always describe it to students as it's like there's this gremlin on your shoulder, looking over you while your hand hits the paper or the keyboard, and that guy is saying, "No, no. It's not good enough. No, no, it sounds like Wayne Shorter. No, no, it's not that." And that guy has to be slapped off your shoulder. He's got to go. He has to come back as the musical editor, but he can't be there to say "No, it's not original. No, it's not cool. That's not the way to go."